“Sometimes it’s dangerous to be a little different”.
The statement that marks the beginning of Ultimate X-Men. The second book out of the gate during Marvel’s Ultimate launch in 2000, not only speaks to the life of Marvel’s fictive mutants but also the dangers in re-envisioning icons.
Mark Millar’s opening, though a bit heavy-handed on the narrative side, initially assures readers that this version of the world’s most popular team of mutants is not all that different. Intact is the familiar paranoia and the all-too familiar tension between mutants and an oppressive government. A roll call would provide all familiar faces. Back-stories, intentions and orientations were all deployed in an attempt to provide characters that are at once relevant and relatable for teenage readers. The teen demographic, after all, is what Marvel was gunning for in the Ultimate line. But as is often the case with bright ideas, the Ultimate line became an animal all its own.
The Ultimate imprint, with new versions of the Avengers, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and the X-Men in tow, garnered readership that spanned demographics instead of narrowing them. The Ultimates, the new version of the Avengers, provided Millar and artist Bryan Hitch an opportunity to craft one of the more vastly scoped mainstream superhero epics in recent memory. Brian Michael Bendis, teamed with ‘90s Amazing Spider-Man artist Mark Bagley, had possibly the most effective teen-tackling strategy in bringing the Wall Crawler back to adolescence. Bendis and Millar tag-teamed Ultimate Fantastic Four. A title which would be passed along to Warren Ellis and brought further into the sort of zany, classic-FF science by that time lost on the book’s mainstream counterpart. Each book’s creative team was given the task of adapting comic book icons to younger audiences. Marvel was intent on discerning the core virtues of the source material and gaging whether or not these ideals are worth maintaining.
Millar’s own experience with the X-book amounted to little. He had been tapped to write a proposal after reading only “three X-Men books” and watching the first of the franchise’s films. Millar related, “I saw the movie, liked it a lot, and then wrote something with almost NO knowledge of the characters and expected them to wipe their asses with it. However, they felt the problems with the X-Men in recent years was the lack of mainstream appeal and suggested that because I knew bugger all about it, I should be the guy.”
Each Ultimate book was careful to develop a separate and unique overarching thematic. The Ultimate X-Men thematic came with an edginess and a consistent element of danger. With each quickly-paced narrative, readers would see the titular mutants being pursued by both bitter humans and mutants with far more sanguinary ideals.
But maybe it is dangerous to be a little different, as the book’s opener states. It was certainly a gamble for Millar to take everyone’s favorite oppressed group of superheroes and to reboot their struggle. It was perhaps a harder task to do so without seeming redundant, stodgy and even desperate in an attempt to engage the consumer’s aggressive side. The book’s opening pages certainly combine the Ultimate aim of defining new narrative paths that are both unique and universal. It is that familiar sight that begins the story; a now infamous Sentinel (a mutant seek-and-capture robot) chasing down a group of mutants. The scene, aided by the pencils of X-vet Adam Kubert, feels like something fans have seen before. But the visceral “CRUNCH” of the Sentinel’s foot on a snacking mutant ups the stakes. Quickly readers realize that the youthfulness of this book should not be mistaken for insincerity.
As one reads further, something comes into focus. For every conventional X-Men nod, there’s something twisted within its foundation. The danger and desperation of the X-Men saga become the only true aspects intact from the original vision of Stan Lee. Some characters, like Jean Grey, seem to differ radically from their mainstream counterparts. Entire back-stories are shifted into a much less-convoluted, much more-convenient mode. Millar’s simplistic yet encapsulating understanding of who the X-Men are may not be culled from Marvel’s Official Handbook, but the book has drawn on a core virtue of Lee’s original vision. This book is about the historical significance of what makes the team’s plight engaging.
When Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the team in 1963’s The Uncanny X-Men #1, no mutants were being crushed by a towering robot’s boot. Nor was anyone willing to slice the throat of a teammate over a girl (as with Millar’s take on the Wolverine-Cyclops dynamic). Instead, readers were treated to the team preparing for a class, but not before making sure Professor X was comfortable and at ease in his chair. The only thing resembling the bloodshed of the Ultimate X-Men first issue was the good professor’s crimson recliner.
With credit to Lee and Kirby, the book would go on to tackle the Civil Rights movement in one of comic book’s great societal reflections. But that danger and desperation can be found right in that first issue, packed deep within the layers of camp. This was a story about a group of kids, with incredible powers, who attempt to reconcile their gifts with themselves and the world. They are given a task—a duty—to defend the world that alienates them. It is in this simple concept that we find that peril. In a world where few may feel like they have the power to defend against injustice, what kind of implications are in store for those who can? Certainly, power provides its own vulnerability.
The case for hazard being at the heart of the X-Men can be seen in several of the more prolific storylines of the team’s history. Danger, whether in fear of becoming extinct or the realization of one’s true power having catastrophic results is always palpable. At times, the X-Men’s greatest fears and adversity comes from one in their own ranks. At any time, one can lose control, be turned to mischief or simply let their nature take over. It is their response as a team that unifies the X-Men and constructs the central themes of their story. As we watch the film adaptations, we are treated to this prominent aspect of the X-brand—whether it’s a death-defying rescue outside of an airborne Blackbird or the brutal defense of a school under attack. And as Ultimate X-Men continued, it certainly lost something. Some can blame it on continuity, as certain writers seem bent on galvanizing canon with broad ignorance. Some may blame it on art, as unique interpretations and styles are sometimes preferred over aesthetic consistency. But what the book most vitally lost was its sense of desperation.
So perhaps it is dangerous to be a little different. But after experiencing Millar’s first stab at the X-Men, it could be said that being a little different is fine, as long as you’re being dangerous.
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